Ben Harper's labour of love

By Scott Kara

Folk-rock bluesman and Kiwi favourite Ben Harper tours New Zealand next month off the back of his new album of love songs and ballads from his 20-year career.

Ben Harper is returning to New Zealand. Photo / Supplied
Ben Harper is returning to New Zealand. Photo / Supplied

It's been a rocky few years in the love life of Ben Harper. He's been going through a prolonged divorce with his wife, actress Laura Dern, and an ongoing custody battle for their children looms too.

Not that he's talking specifics on the phone to TimeOut today. But, says New Zealand's favourite overseas folk-rock bluesman, he still believes in "everlasting love".

"Committing to love is one of the best things in life," he says, before stopping, collecting his thoughts and opening up. "Okay, people talk about a failed marriage, or failed relationship. Well, for me, it's not whether or not love works, it's that you have loved. Because it is the greatest growth you can undergo, and it's really one of the only ways to truly see and know yourself. To love and be loved."

Harper's openness is startling because in the past he has been a notoriously fickle and difficult interview subject. The sort to question your questions, and not give any insight into his songs because he believes they speak for themselves. But today he's proclaiming himself a hopeless romantic, offering thoughts about his songs, and is in good humour, even when he's alluding to his private life.

"Love and marriage is the deepest and most meaningful growth I have ever experienced and that's why I believe in it. I'm not saying I'm the best at it, but boy, I know what it has brought to my life and it's irreplaceable."

Tomorrow Harper releases his latest album, By My Side, which ironically, given his current relationship status, is a retrospective of his favourite love songs and ballads from his 20-year career.

"I wanted the songs that are hopelessly romantic, because I still believe in everlasting love and the pursuit of [it]. So I wanted it to be made up of love songs.

"And maybe volume two will be the fall-out," he jokes.

He's also heading back to New Zealand at the beginning of next month for four shows - and he's still as popular as ever, with two of the concerts (one in Auckland, one in Wellington) already sold out.

He was last here in support of Pearl Jam at Mt Smart Stadium in 2009, although he was meant to visit last year as part of the failed Grassroots blues festival.

"It's been too long," he says of the delay in getting back to New Zealand, which was one of the first countries in the world to adopt Harper, off the back of his second album Fight For Your Mind from 1995 and songs like Excuse Me, Mr and Ground On Down.

This time round he will be playing a show billed An Acoustic Evening with Ben Harper, though it will not just be him sitting on a bar stool with a guitar. He's bring a fleet of different guitars, a piano, and many other instruments including vibes and ukuleles. The acoustic setting will especially suit the quieter songs of By My Side.

The album came about because under his recording contract he has to release a certain number of greatest hits records but the prospect of putting out a bunch of his best-known songs was obvious and boring.

"What I get in the street twice a day, four times a day, is, 'I fell in love with your music. We got married to your music.' That's what I get a lot, and so I wanted to do a record that is the positive uplifting side of love. A ballads record."

There were tracks that had to be included, like Gold to Me and By My Side (both off Fight For Your Mind), but then there's the beautiful Happy Ever After in Your Eyes from his 2006 album Both Sides of the Gun (which went No 1 in New Zealand), the meandering and dulcet Diamonds on the Inside, and the fragile beauty of rare B-side Not Fire Not Ice. It also includes new song, Crazy Amazing, written for his youngest daughter, Jaya.

"She's just crazy amazing. She's amazing times 1000," he laughs. "I just started singing this melody when I was rocking her to sleep and [thought] 'this just might be something'."

The thing about Harper's songs is that they sound good both acoustic or electric. "Well, I'm counting on it," he laughs.

Stripped back to their core, the songs also take on new and often more poignant meanings than before.

"Especially when you throw in a well-rounded amount of life experience."

Not that Harper is about to give an example because, he says, reverting back momentarily to being a difficult interviewee, those special qualities happen "in the moment".

"The songs take me to a different place every time I play them. So sometimes I'm in the same place as when I wrote it and sometimes I'm in the exact moment of where I am that day. It just depends on the energy, and every song has that potential."

Though he has always been a band leader, he admits being on stage solo is not so much daunting as a challenge for him. And he wanted to stretch his capabilities, which is why he made the decision to play more than just guitar during the upcoming solo sets.

"I want to go deep into my life's passion, which is making music and playing it on different instruments. I've gone as far as putting particular tubes in particular amps that would heat to a particular temperature that would bring out the best in a Fender Stratocaster, because it's not a rock sound I'm going for, I'm going for a kind of tiny church sound on the Strat'. And I gotta tell you, I'm having the best musical time of my life right now. It's the best."

And he's even more excited about next year when he releases Get Up (out January 29), an album recorded with harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite ("one of the last pillars of the founding sound that is Chicago blues").

He likens the experience to his collaboration with the Blind Boys of Alabama in 2004, when he felt like "I finally grew up as a musician". Only after playing alongside Musselwhite, who he met when they both recorded with John Lee Hooker in 1997, he believes "I most likely became a man.

"To play with Charlie you've got to have some pretty decent karma, because he's such a saint. Just to be around him is like having a vitamin B shot in the bum. You just feed off of it."

Who: Ben Harper
When and where: Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, Nov 2 and 3 (sold out); ASB Theatre, Auckland, Nov 5 (sold out) and 6.
New album: By My Side, out tomorrow
Essential listening: Fight For Your Mind (1995); The Will to Live (1997); Burn to Shine (1999); Diamonds on the Inside (2003); Both Sides of the Gun (2006)

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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